This is a window into my life story as a closed adoption adoptee. What is it exactly? Well, it is the most mundane of things really. Something that few people ever give thought to for more than a cursory glance except when getting a driver’s license or passport. But for some of us, this is one document that confirms proof of my actual existence, not the legal fiction that was imposed upon me the day that my adoption was finalized on the 8th day of my life.
We adoptee’s, those who were raised in a closed adoption are often cast into a legally imposed, permanent state of anonymous identity. At birth, our birth parents were given the option to sign our original birth certificates if they so desired. In my case, I got very lucky because my birthmother, knowing full well that there was the significant probability that she would never see me in her lifetime, placed her name on my original birth certificate. She was fortunate on that day to be given this advice by her attending nurse who said it would be the only way I might ever be able to one day find her. This one document, my original, non-amended birth certificate signed by my B-mom (as I like to refer to her) was immediately thereafter, signed, sealed and locked away permanently with the intention of being withheld from me regardless of my desire and or legal/civil rights to obtain it, for forever.
Since I was a small child, I had infinite questions about my coming into this world and got no real answers. There are many assumptions that others make about adoptees, and a general societal push that encourages us to embrace the belief that we should be infinitely grateful for our lot in life without a hint of regret or reservation. To be adopted, (those of us who were lucky to even be told in the first place that we were indeed adopted) were indoctrinated to believe that we were “chosen”, we were a “gift”, and we were given to a family who loves us and wanted us. These words were drilled into my head so that should the matter even enter my mind when the subject came up, I was reflexively reminded that being chosen and a gift should satisfy my curiosity. We are told repeatedly that being adopted meant that we were supposed to feel the same as anybody else in the world when it comes to family, self-identity, and genealogical history.
As it stands at present, I am completely comfortable at home with the family that I was raised in. My parents are my parents and I love them. But once I had my own children, I noticed a slight albeit significant difference between the relationship that I had with my adoptive parents growing up, and the one I have with my natural children. It is hard to put my finger on without my feeling as if that I am somehow insulting the very people I love, who raised and supported me, and have been the only parents I will ever have. But I will say that there is just a primal connection. My husband and I are like a little wolf pack with our two children, who are all so much like us in disposition, temperament, taste, sense of humor as well as looks, mannerisms, body types. This simply did not exist in the family I was raised in no matter what my amended birth certificate reads.
So “not knowing anything about my familial background” was simply the only truth that I had ever known. There were many years where I would tell others that I chose “not to search”. I bought into the narrative that is consistently imposed upon many Adoptees “It doesn’t matter where you came from, you are here, your parents are your parents, case closed”. This truth weighed down upon me like a heavy blanket; it was both comforting as it was confining. The real truth was that I was always searching and hoping to find my B-mom; I just constantly hit enormous bureaucratic barriers every time I went through the formal channels.
In high school and college, I would spend endless hours in the library looking for and reading up on Ohio adoption laws, Massachusetts Adoptee rights (the state I was raised in by my parents). My curiosity and interminable questions always kept coming up. So before I turned 18 and before the age of the Internet, my (A) mother allowed me to sign up to add my name to an adoption reunion registry that came to the house in the form of a quarterly-newsletter. This helped me feel less helpless but nothing ever came out of the reunion registry. So for many years it was easier to just say that I wasn’t searching. When I was asked about my adoption, I would laugh and say, “well I am looking, but if anything, my birthmother should be the one looking for me!” People would politely chuckle and a few moments thereafter the conversation moved on.
But the truth was I was missing something and someone. When one grows up, living in a different family than ones biological one, in a different house, town, state and existence of being, without any access to information about ones family history, genealogy, medical history; how can one help but have myriad questions?
I often felt as if when I was growing up that I was an apple duct-taped to the side of an oak tree. My family gave me everything I needed: shelter, love and space to grow, but the ‘fit’ has always felt imposed, like wearing the wrong sized shoes. This feeling waxed and waned over the years to a degree. My parents knew well of my independent spirit, did me a huge favor by allowing me to spread my wings. As a child, I went to summer sleep away camps for at least a month at a time. I also went to college several hours away from home, was able to take a few trips around the country and in my 20’s to Europe. My (A) parents somehow intuitively knew that if they attempted to clip my wings, this would likely backfire. Staying close to home was not suited to the wanderlust that stirred within my chest cavity. As a grown woman today, I can now see how they gave me a wide bandwidth to discover and grow into myself. Perhaps, this is one of the benefits of growing up under a legal fiction. We get to write our own story, free and unencumbered nor burdened by the past. Liberation is ours, if only we notice it. The hard part though was often guessing at what might be really true about ourselves.
Before I made contact with my B-mom, (I had her name and contact information for 3 years before we were actually able to reunite.) It always felt as if there was a towering brick wall pressed up against my back. There behind that wall contained the truth and the sealed-away secrets of my past that might reveal my true self.
So, this one elusive piece of paper held the answers, and more information to who I was “originally” before I was given a new identity. As a child, I would often take out my birth certificate and stare at it, wishing and willing it to reveal the truth to me. It is also not like typical non-adoptee birth certificates. These documents often look like diplomas with an official seal. Not mine though, my amended birth certificate looks more like a cold war era record that had been smuggled out of an East German, secret police file. It is mimeographed in negative form with the page in black and typed out in white ink. It placed my new given name right under the names of my adoptive parents and their backgrounds, with the intention of entirely rewriting my historical and genetic existence.
In early 1964, six years before my birth, the state of Ohio passed a law that legalized the sealing of all original birth certificates with the desired intention to prevent adoptees from even knowing that they were even adopted. The records were sealed and were intentionally withheld from adoptees, birthparents, and extended family unless by extraordinary circumstances such as: the event of a birthparents death, the birth certificate could be released to an adoptee after 25 years of the birth parents passing. Birth parents could also sign a “release of information” waiver with the court. However time and again, the Ohio state probate court and in collusion with the Vital Records Board would bury, lose, or deny these waivers even existed even to those who filled them out in the first place.
On our first attempt to get my non-amended birth certificate, my birth mother and I had already been reunited for over a year, so we both filed the necessary paperwork for our information to be released to one another. I heard nothing and neither had she, so we both called the Probate Court’s office and then either transferred and/or hung up on while being transferred to the Vital Records office. On one of my calls to find out the status regarding my petition, I was questioned by one of the office clerk’s who asked me in a confrontational tone of voice:
“How do I know that the woman is my birthmother is actually her? You don’t have any real proof.”
Really, this actually happened, she actually said those words to me and seemed more than happy to sweep the rug out from under my feet.
I remember responding back incredulously. “I’m sorry. But, excuse me? How do I know? Well, we are the same height, we look alike, have the same hair, and neither of us was born with any wisdom teeth. The pictures of ourselves from high school look as if we are the same person with vastly different hairstyles. My son looks more like her than her own three sons. She also happened to be in the same hospital on the same day and time and relinquished a baby on the same day that my amended birth certificate states when I was born. We also both said the lawyers’ name who handled my adoption at the same exact time the very first time we spoke. But, yeah you’re right; how could I really be sure except for to you confirm these facts by releasing my original birth certificate to me?” And then she hung up on me.
But again, often when you are an adoptee the joke is on us.
Truthfully, the run around had been going on for years. When I was 18, I wrote a nice letter requesting my original non-amended birth certificate from the Probate court in Columbus, Ohio. They, in turn, sent me my same amended birth certificate. A few years later, I figured out that I could ask for “Non identifying information”. I sent another request asking for my non-amended birth certificate, also I placed a release of information should a birthparent come looking for me. I received another copy of my amended birth certificate and a sheet informing me of my natural parent’s background, their ages at the time of my birth, level of education, race, religion, height, and eye color. It was information; there were clues to my past! I knew then that someone signed something and that I existed! I had a past before I was adopted at 8 days old. This bought me time. I pored over this information, it satiated some pining's for a few solid years. But life events time and again pressed me forward to get real answers.
Stay tuned for Part II
Sara Knight is a writer, degreed - life counselor, and closed adoption Adoptee. She was born in Columbus Ohio in 1970 and was adopted 8 days later. She and her birthmother, extended family and adoptive family have been successfully reunited since April, 2005. She lives in Oakland, CA and is the proud mother of two darling (natural children); and happily married to college sweetheart for over eighteen years. She is presently developing a memoir about her adoption story and birth origins that sound as if they were pulled from the 1980’s show, Dynasty storyline.